Monday, August 17, 2015

How Many I-s in the Hotel of Xi Chuan?

     by John Kinsella

A few days ago I had the privilege of hearing the Chinese poet from Beijing, Xi Chuan, reading from his work and discussing it, along with his English-language translator Lucas Klein. What grabbed me even before the reading began was Xi Chuan’s statement that his poetry was not of a single ‘I’, but rather a cluster of I-s. I don’t think any poet is a single I, and I have often over the years argued against denoting a unified self. Ouyang Yu and I had read earlier in the day, and I feel certain both of us would resist any sense of an intact ‘I’ in what we do, aside from our use of ‘voice’, in who and what we are as poets.

What Xi Chuan outlined as his reason for stating this, his need for such a declaration, struck me as deeply relevant and vital. He discussed having a ‘hotel in [his] head’ which is inhabited or co-inhabited by a number of other voices which are not his own. This is not so much a conceptual statement of artistic practice as one of deep necessity. In that hotel, or maybe boarding house, are those who have been lost or extinguished, those whose voices were taken from them, who were forced into silence. His own voice has to accommodate the silenced — provide spaces for them to speak, and to write out of him.

It was clearly painful for Xi Chuan to discuss this, and what began as a kind of ironising (of all notions of innovation, of himself, of us all) quickly became a deeply-felt ‘confession’ of obligation and respect, of necessity. It was witness carried to the extent of giving away one’s sense of unified self (should even the idea exist) to a polyvalent (my interpolation) self. Not many selves, but many other selves.

His poetry is group portraiture and choir singing; it is the quintet; it is the private meeting in the public house of poetry. The complexities of an intertwining public and private become devastating as images and glimpses are sewn together from Xi Chuan’s own experience, what he knew of those who had been his friends or colleagues, what he imagines of them now, and what they ‘stand for’. Symbol streams through Xi Chuan’s poetry, which both reconstitutes the damaged and withers what flourishes out of toxicity. Wit through understatement and unexpected juxtaposition, allusions to beauty and hope, play against each other in what one might understand as a ‘dance’ of voices cross-speaking in the hotel of self. A lyrical-self is counterpointed with the other selves speaking in many voices in themselves: urban, rural, landscape, built-scape, intellectual, quotidian, and the contradictions that make up any viewpoint, any political, ethical or social stance. The poem ‘Notes on a Mosquito’ (to which I will return) is case in point.

From the angle of ‘polysituatedness’ as construct, Xi Chuan’s multiple accommodated selves, selves that aren’t split off from himself but have entered and contribute to his self, Xi Chuan’s poetry becomes about the place of setting, the place he himself occupies, yet also all the places the other ‘lost’ poets and friends fill or would have filled. His place is their place too — this is a polysituatedness of loss, of a tragic reconstitution as statement of persistence and survival. And this loss is concrete and irreconcilable. We read in Lucas Klein’s introduction to Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems (New York: NDP, 2012): ‘The high-lyricism of Xi Chuan’s earliest poetry would not last. Because of the government’s suppression of the democracy and worker’s right movement in Tiananmen Square, in which Xi Chuan participated, 1989 was a hard year for China’s young intellectuals; it was an even harder year for Xi Chuan, as on March 26, Hai Zi committed suicide (he was twenty-five), and on May 31 their mutual friend and fellow Beijing University poet Luo Yihe died from a cerebral hemorrhage (age twenty-eight), days before PLA tanks rolled in on the demonstration of June 4.’

The eliding of deeply-felt personal loss with loss on a large, private-public scale wounds and opens the self. Either germs enter the wounds and cause gangrene and loss of mental limbs, or what those lost were enters and inhabits and builds in the host-self. I got the sense of Xi Chuan as a host-self poet.

In the prose poem ‘Notes on the Mosquito’ the play between life and death, killing the mosquito and becoming the mosquito and what it represents (to the killer), are woven together into a dystopic ‘welcoming’ mat of language and ‘this is who and what we make ourselves’. The stunning and vivid images that so took me during the reading, with their anaphoric departures and rhetorical threads (images as beads on a necklace came to mind at the time), are played with an irony drawing on an international awareness that irony works in different ways in different cultural spaces and places.

Xi Chuan, who talks of Yang Lian in his afterword, is like Yang Lian in his polymath elucidation of ‘classical’ Chinese in a cross-language cross-cultural and interhistorical contextualising. The mosquito as symbol of not only the ‘ordinary’ person, the ‘everyman’, the selves neglected by the acclaiming public, by the big public movements of history – is also, well, a mosquito. Thing-in-itself. Different. And difference and sameness are at the core of the ontology of this ‘meditation’ in irony both lachrymose and lambent. To quote from Lucas Klein’s translation (his translations of Xi Chuan’s poems are superb poems in their own right), we go from brutality to existential musing. From:

In the crevices of history, mosquitoes are everywhere. They have witnessed and even participated in beheadings, human quarterings by cart-horse, busted embankments on the Yellow River, and the peddling of sons and daughters, yet not once do the twenty-five books of the dynastic histories mention the mosquito.

to, six stanzas later: ‘So what human form does the mosquito take after it dies? Someone buzzing and flitting in front of me, he must have been a mosquito in a previous life.’

Xi Chuan is a master at tackling the ordinary lyrical observation and manifesting it through historical-cultural specifications of place. He takes an idea, or maybe a word itself, and lets it grow. Razor-sharp observation mixes with casual conversation, and while remaining understated, vast structures can build from fragments. Sensuality and decay, youth and ageing, comfort and pain, vie with each other in building the ‘shape of the poem’ itself. I think of Pound’s vase being cracked open to leave the shape of the poem that had been poured into it. The shape is conceptual, and often amorphous and beautifully contradictory. ‘Drizzle’ manifests:

it’s not fur—it’s mold—mold on stones    mold on bread
it’s drizzle
it’s drizzle that makes    clothes grow moldy   the spirit grow moldy—
      this is the decay drive

and later in ‘Drizzle’:

eighty days of drizzle—not too long
eighty days of drizzle enveloping 120, 000 square miles of land and
      sea—not too broad

Place is in the poem, place/s are in us. Cycles that become moebius strips in which we question where we stand and who we are. There are many departures of self in the selves of Xi Chuan, and maybe, also, his translator and readers. As it is unpublished (but a video exists here), I cannot include a sample here of the poem ‘Bloom’, the tour de force with which Xi Chuan and Lucas Klein finished the reading, but maybe I can cite the final two lines in the English translation as the poem built and built and snowballed through the rhythms of being, wherein the many I-s in the hotel of Xi Chuan’s self bloomed in their variety, disturbance, strangeness contradictions and beauty:

just bloom like a fool
just bloom casually and carelessly come for all your marvelousness bloom

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

21st Anniversary Poem for Tracy

Night Parrot Privacy

            for Tracy

They say if enough are found
we might be able to take
a look — imagine
how much they'd be worth
to a thief! a scientist conjectures.

Scientist: networked being
of authority, autonomous
from the non-scientist.

But the excitement of the small
live bird in the hand, he says.
The dusk-into-night shrill flights,
the bowers on ranging land,
a giant cattle spread.

Secret location — weirding
form of bio-security,
memory refound but lost
to the grooves worn by cattle,
the privations of science

& the business
of survival.


Friday, August 7, 2015

Tracy's new poetry book to be launched in Melbourne

By Tracy

I am really delighted to have this book of poems coming out with Whitmore Press. Hoard draws its imagery from the bogs of Ireland, and has a beautiful cover featuring one of Bernadette Kiely's Bog Cotton paintings.

Big thanks to Anthony Lynch, Amanda Johnson, Deirdre Carmichael and all -- and in advance to Marion May Campbell for launching Hoard!

You can read a sample poem from the book at Arc Poetry Magazine, featured as part of its collaboration with Cordite...

From the Whitmore press website:

Launch of new Tracy Ryan collection – Melbourne 31 August

"Whitmore Press is delighted to announce that Tracy Ryan’s latest poetry collection, Hoard, will be launched in Melbourne by Marion May Campbell. The details:

Collected Works bookshop
First Floor, Nicholas Building, 37 Swanston Street, Melbourne
Monday 31 August, 6pm for 6.30 start
Launch by Associate Professor Marion May Campbell – poet, novelist, academic and brilliant raconteur

Hoard hi res

Tracy was the co-winner of the 2014 Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize. We hope you can make it. Everyone welcome."

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Near Goomalling: Oak Park Concretions

poem-texts by John Kinsella, photos by Tracy Ryan

CASE 1: These concretions were prepared in late spring and displayed in early autumn. The gap was part of the process between text as conceptual and text as installation. In situ, they become integral parts of place, if temporary ones. After the fact, they are representational: of that moment, of the history of Oak Park. Between preparing text and displaying it came the devastating summer. There are no more edges, no more ecotones — the blurring is not liminal, but sharp lines of demolition. No benefits and richness and plethoras where habitats contact and overlap, but the scribble of damage. What is given way to is the reality of the vestigial or the remnant. Not a condition of healthy and unhealthy, but of different states of decay. It’s a brutal reality — the land set aside is dying, and rehabilitation is a gesture. The farmed land feeds the nature-reserve land with its residues. Does that mean one should resign oneself to this? Of course not. But the edges need to be unmapped, need to be denied, to grow over into an ambiguity, which is what the romantic ecologists wish as edge and liminality. ‘Habitat’ is extinct as useful terminology — its colonial residues are toxic.

CASE 2: In photographing the words, one had to be careful to avoid the couple who were come across on a bench installed near the saline (dry) lake, caught in flagrante; one turns away. Nature walking. Nothing of Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, though you might think the couple thrill to the idea, nature in decay around them. But there is life: swamp sheoaks, bobtails, bush flies, mosquitoes, rabbits, roos, willy wagtails playing the trickster in acacias nearby: all the transliterations of their name (djitty djitty, jiddy jiddy...). All the perching birds watch on suspiciously, as we won’t watch, as we avoid and scuttle away, giving the realm of place to the love-makers.

CASE 3: To mention an edge doesn’t give us an edge. To note the gnamma hole worked over centuries to make deep water-storage now full of beer cans and cigarette packets, the granite a radon machine, is not to participate in custodial presence. It is not scenic, and visiting is not participatory. The machine of the water place is altered with the ticking-off of points on the walk. Journey to the centre of the earth. Discovery wearing down to bare bones.

CASE 4: This spiral of husbandry taking us far away from a source point at any given moment. The wild-oats scenario: chokes out native grasses, and then the poisons used to eliminate it alter the bio-chemistry of the soil, the place as a whole. Metaphor and data overlap, compete, leave blank dead areas and the sand in a state of unrest, vulnerability, as unstable as the texts printed with industrial ink on recycled commercial paper with the costs imposed on environment far away. The slippage of textual activism, the polyfilla that is poetry. Yet this is not a denial of the living world but rather an affirmation. As Shelley writes in Prometheus Unbound (IV, Ione): ‘How every pause is filled with undernotes,/Clear, silver, icy, keen, awakening tones/Which pierce the sense and live within the soul’... We might have an inversion of seasons and basic climatics, but the same resolution life has to find a way is what drives this act of witness, presence and participation.

CASE 5: For some, and maybe for many of those whose land this is and will eternally be (going forward, going back, in the depth and dimensions of here and now), place is a location (technically, a set of co-ordinates, a specifically quantifiable and locatable set of points using the planets, the stars... a wider sense of time and place) that cannot be erased by the destruction wrought through colonial invasiveness. The texts are not sonorous, but they might be words plucked from a song, or sounds from those words might form harmonics with words from the song of place. That’s wishful supposition, but it’s also aspiration. It seeks to appropriate nothing, and will leave no discernible physical mark. The desire behind these concretions is to leave little signature, to do little or no damage, to acknowledge and maybe vicariously participate in a health of locality, place, timelessness. But a conceptual imprint is left and is magnified by the images being blogged or published or displayed, even if they are ignored. And that is an imposition the poet and the reader/viewer must process and be accountable for.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

In support of a multicultural Australia

Graphology Mutations 50

Okay, hate-mongerers, you commandoes
of the Patriotic Front, and Reclaim Australia
and the various ‘splinter groups’ where
bigotry itches and who you are confuses,
struggles through a melange of nation-
making ‘freedoms’ and constraints, where
Ned Kelly rallies to a cause that was
never his and Neo-nazis come along
for the ride, breaking bread and skulls...

let me tell  you something. My brother,
Australian shearer respected by farmers,
surfer without borders, spent yesterday
saying  ‘Selamat Hari Raya’ to all whose
path he crossed, ate with his Malay family,
dressed in Baju Melayu bought by his  step-
daughter, celebrating Eid al-Fitr at Kuantan —
their balik kampung, and his, as much as here.

You are all part of his anecdotes — what
he has heard and seen in his life. Some of you
will have worked alongside him. I saw
a photo of him dressed as ‘head’ of his
family. It didn’t stop you being who
you want to be. Your ‘way of life’ wasn’t
threatened. Light was there as well.
and his smile left you silent, peaceful.

            John Kinsella